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Seymour Mayer, 1926-2023

Seymour Mayer, 1926-2023

September 25, 2023 7:01 pmComments are Disabled

He never said he was hungry.

That’s the thought I have had over and over today, as I fast in observance, and in honor of, the first Yom Kippur in my life without my grandpa. It would have been his 98th Day of Atonement, every one of which he fasted if he could, even when he was in a concentration camp.

As a kid, nothing would earn me a rebuke from my grandfather faster than complaining about being hungry. He wouldn’t allow it. “You don’t know what real hunger is,” he would say. And never, no matter how long it had been since he had last eaten, did he ever even mention he was hungry. He knew that food, like life, was a gift. He ate when he could, and he never took what he had for granted.

I’ve been trying to write an obituary for my grandfather, who was an extraordinary man in so many ways. One early attempt started with me listing all of these ways in which he was extraordinary, one after another, in an uninterrupted stream: Holocaust survivor, shoemaker, woodworker, painter, jeweler, avid reader, news junkie, Scotch aficionado, successful immigrant, patriotic American, respected Jewish community leader, lap swimmer, soccer champion, dog lover, story teller, lecturer, chess player, five-language polyglot, husband, father, grandfather, uncle, great uncle, great-great uncle, friend, and beloved family patriarch.

But of course, what a man does in his life is very different from who he is, and what he meant to others. And this weekend, when his family and friends gathered from to bid him a final farewell and lay him to rest, it’s clear that he meant a lot to all of us.

For those of us who were lucky enough to know him, our lives were always enriched with his presence, and more importantly, his stories. Like many survivors of the Holocaust, he tended to fixate on happy memories from his childhood before the war, and had many stories to tell about the majority of his life that he spent in the Philadelphia suburbs, pursuing a humble career as a shoemaker, buying a home, raising a family and achieving the American dream.

But as he approached retirement, just about the time when I was beginning to develop my own childhood consciousness, he started to tell stories about the war, too. He opened up to his friends and family about being deported as a teenager from his hometown in Transylvania along with his mother, grandmother, father, sister and brother. About losing all of them, one by one, to gas chambers, summary execution, starvation, overwork, and illness. About surviving many near death experiences through a combination of luck and cleverness. About his internment in the concentration camps of Auschwitz, Mauthausen, Melk and Ebensee, and about his subsequent liberation by American forces. How he quickly gained his strength back at a displaced persons camp and became one if its star soccer players. How he found his way back to his hometown only to discover his family’s house and business had been ransacked. How he slowly came to realize that he was the sole survivor of his entire family, save for one aunt who had emigrated to Brooklyn before the war, and one half sister who had made it to Israel. How he eventually made it to his aunt in New York by claiming, for quota purposes, to have been born in Czechoslovakia. How he eventually became a citizen and successful shoemaker, and started a family and legacy of his own.

The stories that he told about his life are so remarkable, they are hard to believe. That’s why he took us to Europe to visit the concentration camps in which he was imprisoned. That’s why he took us to his hometown to visit his school, his street, his doctor’s office where he was born, and the site of the temporary ghetto where he was held awaiting the cattle cars.

And that’s also why he knew he had to write down his experiences, so that we would learn from our past, lest we be doomed to repeat it. It’s a lesson he hammered into us many times over the years, as, being the avid reader and amateur historian that he was, he would frequently draw historical parallels to current events. Most recently, he lamented the full-scale Russian invasion of Ukraine, observing that maybe the Ukrainians “weren’t so bad after all.” For a man who often cursed the Ukrainian kapos who treated him so badly in the camps and celebrated the Russians who fought and defeated the Nazis, one might find such a reversal surprising, but it was entirely in character for him to always look for the good in all people. He was never bitter or vengeful about what happened to him.

But what I found so inspiring about my grandfather was not just how he survived the Holocaust, World War II, the Great Depression, the Spanish flu, Covid, a heart attack, a fall, major surgery, and my grandma’s cooking — but how he lived, not just for himself but for others. How he stood up for workers he thought were being underpaid. How he made custom shoes for women whose feet were too big for their standard sizes, because he wanted all women to feel beautiful. How he became a respected elder and patriarch for a family across two continents, who all looked up to him and were inspired by him. How he worked every day and saved every penny to raise a son to accomplish even more than he had. How he took care of his wife, Roz, not only through 60 years of marriage, but every day she suffered and declined from her illness.

Most people are fortunate if they get to know any of their grandparents for any time at all. Few are as fortunate as I have been to know my grandpa as long as I have. Although it is no small feat living almost a century, what always impressed me most about my grandfather was his determination to not just survive, but to live his life happily. For a man whose innocent and carefree childhood was shattered by war, genocide, and unspeakable and profound loss, my “grandpa from Philadelphia” lived his life with only humor, joy and love in his heart. For that alone, I am grateful to be able to honor his legacy.

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